Seoul — The world has learned to play America's games - and play them well. The United States men's basketball team got that message in an unforgettable, even historic, way Thursday. A group of ``boys,'' as their folksy coach calls them, hailing from places like Vilnius and Moscow, simply outshot, outrebounded, outran, outdefensed - and yes, outplayed - a highly touted American squad.
At the other end of the Olympic Sports Complex, athletes from Australia to Holland have been demonstrating their mastery of another quintessentially American game - baseball. In 1984, the debut of baseball as a demonstration sport at the Games the US lost in the finals to Japan. In a rerun on Thursday, the outcome was sweeter, as the Americans held on for a toughly fought 5-3 victory.
Win or lose, Americans are learning how fast the world is catching up with them. The basketball defeat was only the second ever in the Olympics for an American team. The last time, in 1972, was also at the hands of the Soviet team in a controversial, protested finish.
The Americans had waited 16 years for a chance to redress this stain on their basketball dominance. In 1976 the Soviets failed to reach the gold-medal game. And the boycotts of 1980 and '84 kept them apart again.
What they found, 16 years later, is that not only have the Soviets vastly improved, but so has the rest of the world. In fact, the team to watch here may be Yugoslavia, which beat the Soviets in the preliminary round and will face them for the gold medal. And there is Brazil, which knocked off the US in the Pan American Games last year.
Since '72, Americans have had an image of Soviet basketballers as mechanical soldiers - well trained, disciplined, but stiff. But those on the court here look as though they have been polishing their game in some inner-city playground. Sharunus Marchulenis, for example, can pass behind his back, zip downcourt on a fast break, and drive for the basket with the best of them.
The best of Soviet ``playgrounds'' seems to be in the Baltic republic of Lithuania. The top players all hail from there, including Marchulenis, Rimas Kourtinaitis, and 7 ft., 3 in. center Arvidas Sabonis. The three scored 60 of their team's 82 points - while the intimidating Sabonis pulled down 13 rebounds.
US coach John Thompson had selected a team of college all-stars (plus former Navy center David Robinson) which emphasized a tough, scrambling defense, designed to feed an offense strong on inside play and speed. They were undefeated coming out of the preliminary rounds. But Thompson, the highly successful coach of Georgetown University, acknowledged after the game that the Soviets had thwarted his defense from the start.
``They have very good penetration and if they're shooting well outside, it creates an enormous problem,'' Thompson said. But he pointed to the amazingly agile Sabonis as the key on both offense and defense. ``If the ball gets in his hands, he creates problems.''
Soviet coach Alexander Gomelski couldn't say enough about his Lithuanian giant. ``He is a great man - great heart.''
Sabonis's performance was all the more remarkable because he had not played competitive basketball for some 18 months because of a leg injury. Thompson has been critical of the Portland Trail Blazers, owners of his NBA rights, for aiding his rehabilitation. He has also ripped the NBA for helping the Soviets by playing exhibition games against them.
Gomelski, who spoke in a charming blend of pidgin English and basketballese, was more enthusiastic about international cooperation. ``US basketball helps all countries, not just me. It's mistake by Mr. Thompson. He is great coach but he is not foreign minister.''
Of course the NBA has its own interests in all this. Four Soviet players have been drafted, and NBA scouts are also looking at Yugoslav 7-footer Stojan Vrankovic and his backcourt teammate Drazen Petrovic.
Gomelski said it was fine with him if Sabonis and others go play in the NBA. ``Good for my guys - good study.'' He admitted this basketball glasnost has a motive. By the next Olympics, the basketball competition will be open to professionals, so players can get NBA experience and still represent their country.
The Soviet skipper admitted they don't expect to beat the likes of Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan. ``Maybe not win against NBA,'' he said, ``but in 10 years, 15 years....''
After the upset in Seoul, no one was laughing.